Tone deaf: Taiwan’s mobile phone providers continue to confound

There’s nothing like a good old fashioned whinge to see in the New Year, and this New Year has provided me with one nice and early.

This week, No. 2 son’s time came. He’s been incredibly helpful around the flat – doing chores when he hasn’t even been asked, trying his best in a school system that seems designed to smother any flicker of creativity, and generally swelling the old man’s heart with happiness. He wasn’t really pushing me for this – he rarely pushes me for anything – but it was something I’d promised him a while back. Because I’m a single father and, regrettably, sometimes have to leave my kids on their tod, it was also something that I felt was needed.

My obvious first port of call was Far EasTone, with whom I’ve had a contract for over a decade and from whom I acquired a second line for Son No.1 last year. As I stepped through the automatic portals of the Shipai branch, I’d already braced myself for some bullshit. You see, as uncool as it is to say this as foreigner who has been afforded a safe, relatively comfortable and happy life in Taiwan, there is fair amount of bullshit here, particularly in services, both business and public. Banks, tax offices, immigration agencies – bullshit in steaming great dollops.

I’m aware that plenty of people don’t agree with this. They point out that most processes in Taiwan are relatively pain-free and – the quintessential Taiwanese adjective – convenient. Taiwanese and foreigners alike make unflattering comparisons with the unwieldy bureaucracy that assails them in at every turn in Europe and elsewhere.

They rightly hail the comprehensiveness of that hallowed pillar of Taiwanese life – the indispensable convenience store. In the Sanctum of Seven, wonders are worked: At the altar of the Ibon, tickets for nigh on anything can be purchased, postcard photos printed, items sent to and fro islandwide. For a few extra NT, all manner of bills can be paid: from school fees to traffic fines, the Sanctum has you sorted.

They eulogize the ease with which taxes can be paid, immigration cards and other documentation can be obtained, with friendly, helpful English-language services available almost everywhere. Try getting something done with zero English in the UK, they say. Good luck with that, they chortle.

Yet, for all that, when things don’t conform to expectations, when pegs are slightly too round for square holes, when hitherto unencountered situations crop up, things – to borrow rather glibly from Alex Haley – fall apart. It is then that that most dreaded, wince-inducing phrase is likely to be heard: “Meibanfa.”

Mei. Ban. Fa.

Literally meaning “there’s nothing doing,” this expression often actually means one of the following:

  1. I don’t know, so I’ll say it can’t be done because I don’t want to consult my superior, thereby revealing there is an aspect of my job I’m unsure about.
  1. I don’t know, but I’ll say it can’t be done because it will be too much of a pain in the arse to find out.
  2. I know it can probably be done, but I’ll say it can’t because it will be too much of a pain in the arse to do it.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come up against this in my 16 years here. From the 7-11 clerks who refused to give me a package because their system allows for only nine characters in the name section (“James Baro” was obviously someone else and I had somehow managed to wangle his phone number) to the pen pusher in Beitou Household Registration Office who told me I couldn’t possibly possess a household registration for my flat (I do through my son – a minor but a Taiwanese national), the meibanfa-ing never ends.

And, so it was with the staff at Far EasTone.

Things have improved since the days when some providers insisted the only way for foreigners to get a phone or Internet contract was to have a Taiwanese guarantor. In those days, you could argue till you were blue in the face and be met by an insuperable wall of meibanfa. For this reason, my original contract was through my ex-wife. As my sons were still technically still living with her when it came time to get my elder son a contract, she did it for us, though this time using my APRC and paying a deposit.

Since we transferred custody last year and the boys came to live with me, though, I’ve been determined to do everything myself wherever possible. So this time round, I wanted to to get a contract in my name without having to pay for the privilege.

As I’ve just indicated, these days, you can get a contract by paying a deposit (in lieu of a guarantor), which is refunded after a couple of years, but even that I object to. Again, some foreign friends and acquaintances think I’m making a fuss over nothing here (though interestingly most Taiwanese I speak to sympathise), but after 15 years of financially supporting a family single-handedly, paying my taxes and, I’d like to think, making a significant contribution to Taiwanese society, I don’t think it’s too much to ask to enjoy fair treatment.

I should explain here – just to preempt those who might think they’ve spotted a lacuna in my argument (I’m thinking specifically of a couple of notorious apologists for double standards in Taiwan who seem to spend every waking hour trolling anyone who has the temerity to complain) – that this is not a legal issue. In fact, despite the meibanfa-underpinning justifications of staff at Far EasTone and other companies, it doesn’t appear to have ever been one.

Amendments by the National Communications Commission to the Regulations for Administration of Mobile Broadband Businesses came last year, largely at the behest of various chambers of commerce who were concerned that bigwig investors (who can just flash the cash to blag residency) – rather than long-term residents – were having a hard time getting phones. The changes to Article 77 stated that an APRC (though not an ARC) could now be used in place of a passport as the primary ID for setting up Internet or phone contracts. Some branches of various telecom companies are still trying to demand passports, but – by and large – if you stick to your guns, they’ll back down on this.

Nowhere does the law stipulate that a deposit is required. It isn’t. Worse still, even Far EasTone’s own rules don’t seem to specify this anywhere. Yet the staff at my local branch were adamant that APRC or no APRC, I had to pay a deposit and a NT$5,000 prepayment. If I got my ex-wife (who has not had an income for the best part of two decades) to do it for me again, both would be waived.

The only concrete rules I can find on Far EasTone’s Web site state that foreigners applying for a (first) contract need to have a Taiwanese guarantor of over 20 years of age who must provide two forms of ID. This individual need not have ever had a job, nor do they need to demonstrate any relationship to to the person applying. In fact, as I was midway through writing this, a mate reminded me of an incident that occurred a couple of years ago – one that illustrates just how silly things can get.

The day before we were due to set off on a bike ride down to Miaoli, he broke his phone. Feeling that he needed to be contactable if we were to be away for a few days, he attempted to get a new SIM card and phone on his existing contract. The staff at Taiwan Mobile flatly refused this request, and he eventually he had to contact his wife, who was on holiday in Thailand, before they would allow it. In the interim, exasperated at their insistence that he needed a Taiwanese guarantor, he facetiously asked, “So can I just go and grab some drunk off the street and pay him to do it for me?” You can imagine his astonishment when they assented to this proposition.

At that point,” he says “I felt my APRC was kind of really not worth anything.”

It gets worse, or at least equally absurd and contradictory. While I was in the Far EasTone shop, insisting that there is no rule about a deposit and that I knew several people who had contracts without paying one or providing a guarantor – some of whom were confirming as much on a Facebook thread I had started as I stood there – he motioned towards my son.

How old is?” he asked.

No, no, no. He’s eleven. It’s for him.”

Hmm. So he’s in elementary school?”


And he has Taiwan ID, right?”

Yes, but –”

Well, you can use his name when he gets to junior high.”

What? Your Web site says the guarantor needs to be over twenty.”

Nah. He can have it in a couple of years.”

So, not only do they enforce nonexistent rules, they fail to follow the only policies that they have actually overtly stated anywhere.

As our man in Shipai’s next gambit was to suggest that I get Taiwanese nationality (the aforementioned trolls will be nodding in pompous approval at this one), I decided to sling my hook and go back home to vent some more on Facebook.

The next day, following encouragement from some of my fellow netizens, I resolved to give it one last shot. However, as I approached FastEasTone and saw the same faces through the windows, for some reason I intuitively did an about-turn and headed back down Shipai Rd. to the Taiwan Mobile shop. (I’d yet to be reminded of the aforementioned incident involving this company with my friend). That’s where I met Ms. Lee and, my word, what a better place the world would be for outside-the-boxers like her.

She immediately told me I could have a contract with Taiwan Mobile for no deposit with an APRC and was surprised to learn that Far EasTone weren’t having it, especially as I’d been giving them my business for so long, albeit under another name. But here, things took a turn that started to make the whole undertaking genuinely labyrinthine.

Ms. Lee said she could offer me a package for NT$999 a month with a 9-month prepayment, amounting to NT$6993 up front. She insisted that all their packages included prepayments, regardless of whether a customer was Taiwanese or a foreigner and was sceptical of the Far EasTone fellow’s claim that the prepayment could be waived for a Taiwanese person, even one taking out a second contract. (Friends on the Facebook thread had already cast doubt on that one, saying prepayment was pretty much standard now.)

Below that first offer, Ms. Lee also jotted down the details of another package – this one for students – that required a prepayment of NT$3,600, divided into five monthly payments of NT$699. (I didn’t clarify what the leftover NT$105 was for there.) However, she said I would need to already have an existing number to apply for that one.

A number with Taiwan Mobile?”

Not necessarily. Any number will do, but you’d need to transfer it to us.”

Like, transfer my own number with Far EasTone?”

No. Hold on a second.”

She went to check with her manager.

OK, just let me get my coat and I’ll take you over to Far EasTone to do this.”

Back at Far EasTone, a different, sourfaced member of staff was not too happy about all of this, primarily because his kneejerk meibanfa to the proposal was exposed as a husk once he was forced to call management and ask about it (i.e. actually do his job). He had started out by insisting, once again, that I would need a guarantor/deposit, but a combination of Ms. Lee’s stoical persistence and my belligerent muttering – all right, largely the former – forced his hand. I can’t deny feeling extremely satisfied when he hung up the phone and reluctantly said, “OK, we can do it.”

In true face-saving fashion, Ms. Lee thanked him for his help. I, on the other hand, would have been inclined to give him an earful had she not been standing next to me, smiling so beatifically. Sometimes, I confess, the Taiwanese way of handling things is best, but a “thank you” for this guy was a bit rich for my liking.

Having now set up a number and got a SIM card for NT$350, I then had to pay a charge of NT$240 for the transfer, something that Ms. Lee said was required by the NCC. Sourface, who’d perked up a bit because of Ms. Lee’s deft touch, though still couldn’t look me in the eye, then issued the SIM and, minutes later, we made the 100-metre trip back down the road to Taiwan Mobile.

Incredulous at what appeared to be a nonsensical procedure, I asked Ms. Lee rhetorically: “So, Far EasTone is giving you my business?”

She shrugged, nodded and smiled helplessly.

So, they don’t want my my money?”

I know, it’s a little weird.”

It’s ridiculous. What kind of way of doing business is that?”

Again, she shrugged, smiled and nodded in agreement.

As she issued a new Taiwan Mobile SIM card, I asked her what would become of the Far EasTone sitting one next to it on the table.


You’ll just throw it in the bin?”


As if this craziness weren’t enough, she then told me I could claim both the card and transfer fees back – the latter from Taiwan Mobile, who will credit it to my prepayment and the former, quite incredibly, from Far EasTone, who will minus it from my next bill! (I believe I have to go in and ask for that, and who knows what chain reaction of idiotic bureaucracy that will set off.) To make this completely clear, because for me it really is so utterly barmy, Far EasTone will basically pay me to become a customer of one of their competitors!

Including the NT$990 I had to stump up for a phone and the transfer charade, the total cost of my Taiwan Mobile contract was NT$5,180. As Far EasTone wanted NT$7,500 (NT$5,000 prepayment and NT$2,400 deposit) I “saved” over NT$2000 in immediate payments. Obviously, this would have all come back to me eventually anyway, but as I was a bit tight following a Christmas splurge, this did make a difference to me.

But more importantly, I found a way to avoid the deposit and salvage a little pride. My son had predicted that I would achieve nothing aside from “making a bad impression” through my cantankerousness, something I do not give a toss about. He underestimated just how bloody-minded the old man can be when determined to buck a stupid system. Unlike some of the other naysayers, he’s only eleven.

As for the way I had to do it – the logic of such a circuitous process remains to me unfathomable. It’s high time companies in Taiwan put a stop to this dunderheaded malarkey and the accompanying headaches that it inflicts on long-term residents who are merely trying to accomplish what should be routine tasks.

Postscript: On the FB thread that I’ve mentioned, my old pal FOARP reminded me of the ode to dodgy telecoms companies. I leave you with Fela:

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